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Afghan Leaders See Sectarian Agenda in IS Kabul Attack

Men dig graves for victims of the July 23 attack in Kabul.
Men dig graves for victims of the July 23 attack in Kabul.

Tensions are rising in Afghanistan after a suicide attack claimed by the Islamic State (IS) killed more than 80 members of a minority Shi’ite group, and IS's top commander for the country threatened more violence to punish Afghan Shi'ites for fighting alongside the Syrian regime.

The suicide attack on July 23 was the deadliest in Kabul since the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban regime. It targeted a rally by thousands of Hazaras, a predominantly Shi'ite ethnic group that was demanding the government reroute a planned power line through its impoverished region. More than 200 people were wounded in the bombing.

A statement posted Saturday on a website linked to IS said the attack was carried out by two IS fighters and was meant to warn the Hazaras against joining the Syrian government in its fight against the terror group. This is an apparent reference to reports that Iran is covertly training men from the estimated 3 million Afghan refugees it hosts and sending them to Syria to fight alongside government forces.

IS's self-styled commander for Afghanistan, Abu Omar Khurasani, warned that more attacks were coming.

"Unless they stop going to Syria and stop being slaves of Iran, we will definitely continue such attacks," the militant commander told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location. "We can and we will strike them again."

However, Afghan Shi'ite leaders have distanced themselves from reports of Hazaras fighting in Syria and say the attacks were more likely aimed at igniting a sectarian conflict in Afghanistan than altering the battlefield in Syria.

"Clearly, Daesh [IS] sees the Hazara people and Shi'ites as their primary enemy, and it is possible they want to start a sectarian war to break up the country as they have done in Iraq and Syria," said Khodadad Erfani, a prominent Shi'ite member of Afghanistan's parliament.

Not sectarian battles

IS and its precursor in Iraq, Al-Qaeda, have used anti-Shi'ism, a pillar of their religious ideology, to rally the Sunni populations of Iraq and Syria and to sow sectarianism in Yemen by targeting Shi'ite mosques.

Afghanistan, a Sunni-majority Muslim country, has endured four decades of continuous warfare. But unlike neighboring Pakistan, which has a long history of sectarian violence, and the wars in Iraq and Syria, the conflicts in Afghanistan have been fueled mostly by ideological and ethnic cleavages rather than Shia-Sunni sectarianism.

"Sectarianism has not been a major fault line of the conflict in Afghanistan," said Barnett Rubin, a leading expert on Afghanistan at New York University who has written extensively about the country's ethnic politics. "To the extent that there are internal fault lines in Afghan politics, they've been around ideology or ethnicity."

A spate of anti-Hazara attacks in recent years had failed to trigger a violent response.

Taliban distances itself

Rubin said the Taliban’s denunciation of recent bombing, as well as previous anti-Hazara attacks, was significant.

"They also do not want to turn this into a sectarian war," he said.

The Taliban see IS as a spoiler and have waged a bloody campaign against the group over the past year in an attempt to demonstrate its bona fides as the largest insurgent movement fighting the Afghan government and its American backers.

"There is really no space for [IS]," Rubin said. "It's hard to see what political function Daesh would have in Afghanistan. Who would it appeal to? It doesn't appeal to anyone. It doesn't fulfill any function."

Rubin said the Shi'ite community's measured response to those attacks may be explained by a belief that the attacks for the most part were carried out by non-Afghan actors. Hazara leaders may also fear losing significant political gains they've made since the overthrow of the Taliban.

"Their leadership understand that the well-being and security of the Hazara population in Afghanistan depends on maintaining the unity of this government, because this is the best situation Hazaras have had in the history of Afghanistan," Rubin said, referring to the Hazara political representation in government.

Shi’ite leaders work to lower tensions

In the aftermath of the attack, Hazara leaders sought to cool tempers. The country's two top Shi'ite officials, Vice President Sarwar Danish and Deputy CEO Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, called for calm and urged Shi'ites to cooperate with security forces.

Tensions have risen to unprecedented levels, Danish told a gathering of prominent Shi'ite leaders on Sunday before urging them to avoid "finger pointing" and "factional and regional hatred."

Rather than couched in sectarian terms, much of the Hazara rage has been aimed at the government of President Ashraf Ghani, with many young Hazaras taking to social media to vent.

"The attack was shocking to the people, and they're blaming the government for failing to maintain their security," Erfani said.

Further attacks are likely as an ongoing Afghan ground assault, backed by U.S. air strikes, chips away at IS's stronghold in eastern Afghanistan. On July 26, an Afghan official said security forces had killed more than 120 IS militants, including senior commanders, in eastern Nangarhar Province.

"I'm afraid that's entirely possible, because you don't need a large organization to carry out these attacks," Rubin said.

More violence could inflame tensions between Hazaras, until recently a persecuted minority, and Pashtuns, historically the country's politically dominant ethnic group.

"Whatever vestigial or suppressed anger and hatred there may be in a society, events like this stimulate it and bring it out," Rubin said.

Erfani remained hopeful that an ethnic and sectarian conflict could be avoided.

"Their main target may be Shi'ites, but they have not spared other ethnicities," Erfani said of an IS campaign that has killed hundreds of Pashtuns in eastern Afghanistan. "And I think as long as the people -- Pashtuns, Hazaras, Tajiks, Uzbeks -- show unity and take a stand against Daesh, Daesh will not succeed in Afghanistan.”

-- Reported by the Voice of America